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What is Freemasonry?

03 January 1996, 1906 ET

Freemasonry is "a beautiful system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols."

Freemasonry is the world's oldest and largest fraternal organization. Its members may be found in every free country in the world. There are over one milion Freemasons in the United States alone.

Most of what is presented here is particularly applicable to Freemasonry in the United States of America. Many of these bodies exist in other parts of the world, but the requirements for membership, the structure of their organization, and other facets of their operation may differ substantially from what is outlined here. For example, in European Freemasonry, progression through the degrees may be much more prolonged than it is in the US, and the demands for such progress may require presentation of research papers, not only memorization of ritual.

Table of Contents

Masonry is organized into a number of subgroups and organizations:

Some Famous Freemasons

Masonic Charity

Finding a Lodge (for non-Masons and travelers)

A Brief History of Freemasonry

The Masonic Funeral Ode

Difficult Questions Updated: 17 November 1995 1243 ET

Further information

The Symbolic Lodge

The Symbolic Lodge (also known as the Ancient Craft Lodge, the St. John's Lodge, and most commonly as the Blue Lodge) is the fundamental body of Freemasonry. No other part of Masonry is accessible until one has received the three degrees of the Symbolic Rite.

Seeking Membership in the Lodge

Admission to membership in the Lodge, as in any body of Masonry, is by petition. Freemasons do not recruit members. (Some jurisdictions have allowed a very limited form of inquiry by a Mason to a friend who might be qualified to become a Mason.) A man who wishes to join the Lodge must request a petition from a Brother. The basic qualifications for membership are that a man be of lawful age (which depends on the jurisdiction; in some states it is 18, and in others, 21), believe in a Supreme Being, be of good character, and request the privilege of membership of his own free choice. There is a fee for the degrees (not unlike tuition for other kinds of instruction), and at least a portion thereof must accompany the petition in most jurisdictions.

Once a petition has been received, the applicant's character will be investigated by a committee appointed for that purpose. After the committee's report is received, the candidate will be ballotted on at a meeting of the Lodge. A unanimous ballot is required for election to receive the degrees. (In some jurisdictions, no more than one negative vote.) Not everyone is elected. (It is for this reason that traditionally the applicant must request the privilege of petitioning; in case of rejection, he cannot claim that his friend solicited his membership but was unable to keep his promise.)

The Degrees of the Symbolic Rite

An applicant whose ballot is favorable will be contacted by the Secretary of the Lodge as to when to appear to receive the first degree, that of Entered Apprentice. The EA degree is conferred in a ceremony that takes about two hours (the length depends on the jurisdiction, as ritual differs from state to state). The EA degree provides information on the basic duties of every Mason and conveys details of the symbolic structure and origin of the Lodge.

After receiving the EA degree, a statutory time period must elapse before the next degree can be conferred. There is also a certain amount of material that the candidate must commit to memory in order to be qualified to receive the next degree.

The Second Degree, Fellowcraft, follows a similar pattern to that of the EA degree, although its ritual is, of course, different. The FC degree informs the candidate of additional responsibilities associated with his more advanced status, and extends the boundaries of Masonic knowledge beyond the Lodge to practical applications in the world at large.

Again, a statutory time period must elapse, and material must be learned, before the candidate can proceed beyond the FC degree.

The final degree of the Symbolic Rite is the Master Mason Degree. This degree is somewhat more lengthy than the others, as befits its character and significance. It requires further duties of the aspirant, who will become a full member of the Masonic fraternity when this degree is received, and because the holders of this degree are qualified to serve in leadership roles, the degree provides peculiarly Masonic instructions relative to such undertakings.

For a final time, there is material to be memorized in association with the MM degree; in some jurisdictions, this task must be completed prior to petitioning any other organizations within Masonry.

Although the degrees subsequent to the Master Mason Degree are often referred to as "higher degrees," the MM Degree is actually the "highest" degree in Masonry. One can never be more of a Mason than a Master Mason, but one can become a better-educated Mason, which is the intent of the additional degrees of the York and Scottish Rites.

Lodge Organization

The Symbolic Lodge is governed by a Master and two Wardens, along with a group of other officers of appropriate responsibilities. Most lodges meet once or twice a month, but some, particularly those organized for special purposes (e.g., research lodges) may meet quarterly or less often. A meeting specified by the by-laws of the lodge is called a stated communication; a meeting held at some other time is termed a called communication. Most lodges (and other Masonic bodies) use an advancing line of officers; a Brother will serve one year in a position and then move up to a more responsible position the following year (if he has served conscientiously) in a regular pattern. This provides officers with experience at all levels of responsibility and allows for orderly planning of activities. It is also necessary that a Brother serve a year as either Junior or Senior Warden to be qualified for election as Master of a Lodge; the principle of line advancement in office provides this opportunity.

The lodges within any particular jurisdiction are governed by a Grand Lodge, which has its own Grand Officers. The Grand Master of Masons in a jurisdiction is the final authority on all matters Masonic concerning the Craft in his jurisdiction. Most Grand Masters serve a one-year term. In the United States, a Masonic jurisdiction generally coincides with the boundaries of a state, but this is not necessarily the case in other parts of the world.

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The York Rite

Master Masons (those who have received the three degrees of the Symbolic Lodge are entitled to join the York Rite. The York Rite continues many of the lessons of the Symbolic Rite, providing additional historical context, further moral instruction, and more opportunities for fellowship and service.

Technically, virtually all Symbolic Lodges in the United States use the York Rite version of the first three degrees, so all US Freemasons are York Rite Masons. But in practice, the term "York Rite" is used to refer primarily to those organizations conferring degrees subsequent to the Master Mason Degree.

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The Capitular Rite--Royal Arch Masons

Bodies of Royal Arch Masons are known as Chapters. The Chapter is prerequisite to all other bodies in the York Rite, although some may have additional qualifications. The Chapters in a jurisdiction are governed by the Grand Chapter, and the final authority in Capitular Masonry is the Grand High Priest, who is, however, subject to the authority of the Grand Lodge and the Grand Master. There is also a General Grand Chapter of Royal Arch Masons, International, governed by the General Grand High Priest, but the regulatory authority of the General Grand Chapter is limited, and not all Grand Chapters are part of the General Grand Chapter.

Chapters of Royal Arch Masons confer the four degrees of Capitular Masonry: Mark Master, Past Master, Most Excellent Master, and Royal Arch Mason. (Except in Virginia and West Virginia, where there are six degrees; see the Cryptic Rite below. In Pennsylvania there are only three degrees in Capitular Masonry; the Past Master degree is conferred exclusively on those elected to serve as Master of a Lodge.) As there is no statutory time period between these degrees nor any requirement for memorization, the Capitular Degrees may be conferred in a single day; such a session is sometimes known as a Royal Arch Festival, or may be part of a York Rite Festival to include the other conferrals of the York Rite. At the pleasure of a Chapter, however, the degrees may be scheduled over three or four evenings (the PM and MEM degrees are short and can be done in a single evening) over a period of weeks.

Permission to receive the degrees of Capitular Masonry is by petition and ballot, just as for the degrees of Symbolic Masonry. The fees for the Capitular Degrees are generally lower than those charged by the Lodge, however.

Royal Arch Masons are styled as "Companions," while the term "Brother" is used in the Lodge and Scottish Rite. It is a distinction without a difference.

The degrees of Capitular Masonry are intended to provide both further depth of moral instruction and greater historical background to the material in the degrees of the Symbolic Lodge. Often performed in costume, the degrees afford the candidate the opportunity to participate in dramatic reconstruction of events of great significance in the legendary history of Masonry.

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The Cryptic Rite--Royal and Select Masters

[Cryptic Icon 2K] Bodies of Cryptic Masons are known as Councils. Some jurisdictions still use the old term Council of Royal and Select Masters, rather than Councils of Cryptic Masons. The change was made in the late 1970s, when it was felt that the word "Mason" should be used in the title of the bodies for purposes of clearer identification.

Only Royal Arch Masons in good standing may petition for the degrees of Cryptic Masonry. Again, a petitioner must be elected by unanimous ballot, and the appropriate fees must be paid.

In order to become a full member of a Cryptic Council, one must receive the two degrees of Royal Master and Select Master. These degrees are brief enough that they can be conferred in a single evening, on two separate evenings, or as part of a Cryptic or York Rite Festival during the day.

The degrees of Cryptic Masonry emphasize some of the particular duties of a Master Mason and Royal Arch Mason more specifically by example, remind the candidate that the mortality of man places a peculiar urgency on our labors in this life, and instruct that those who have risen highest have nevertheless a duty to return even to their most humble origins and share the benefits they have gained with others less fortunate.

Cryptic Masonry includes two additional degrees: Super Excellent Master and Thrice Illustrious Master. The SEM degree is not conferred in all jurisdictions; however, it is often the custom to offer it to Companions from another jurisdiction who do not have the opportunity to receive it at home. The TIM degree is conferred only on those who have served as Master of a Council of Cryptic Masons. There is also an honorary order in Cryptic Masonry, the Order of Ish Sodi. It may be conferred with or without a special ritual ceremony.

As in Capitular Masonry, there is a Grand Council for every jurisdiction and a General Grand Council, governed by a Grand Master and a General Grand Master, respectively. To distinguish Cryptic Rite Masters and Grand Masters from their Lodge equivalents, the style "Illustrious" is used in Cryptic Masonry instead of the term "Worshipful" used in the Lodge. (The style "Puissant" is used for General Grand Officers and is also used for Grand Council Officers in a few jurisdictions.)

There are no Councils of Cryptic Masons in Virginia or West Virginia. During the Anti-Masonic period of the 1820's, many Masonic bodies turned in their charters. In Virginia, all of the Councils of Royal and Select Masters were forced to dissolve, and the Cryptic Degrees were taken over by the Grand Chapter of Royal Arch Masons to preserve them. When West Virginia separated from the Commonwealth of Virginia during the Civil War, the consequences of this history persisted into the new state. The Royal and Select Master Degrees in these states are conferred in Chapters of Royal Arch Masons in the reverse order (Select Master preceding Royal Master) and before the Most Excellent Master Degree.

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The Chivalric Rite--Knights Templar

Royal Arch Masons in good standing may petition a Commandery of Knights Templar to receive the Orders of Chivalric Masonry. These bodies are essentially Christian in nature, unlike the Chapter, Council, and Lodge, although the wording of petitions in some jurisdictions is sufficiently broad to allow a small number of members of other faiths.

Commanderies confer orders, not degrees. To some, this is a distinction without a difference; to others it justifies the relationship between Chivalric Masonry and a particular religious group, the degrees of Freemasonry being open to all, but the orders of a particular type being restricted.

The Commanderies in a jurisdiction are governed by a Grand Commandery and its Grand Commander; there is a Grand Encampment for the United States of America, which is presided over by a Grand Master.

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Other York Rite Bodies

The York Rite has numerous additional bodies, to which membership in the Royal Arch Masons is a prerequisite. Most important of these is probably the Council of Allied Masonic Degrees. The AMD is a research body, with a membership limited to 27 members in each Council and admission by invitation only. Other groups include the Knight Masons, Masonic Rosicrucians, and a number of honorary bodies, such as the Priories of Knights York Cross of Honor (KYCH). Many of these bodies are by invitation only.

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The Scottish Rite

A Master Mason in good standing may petition the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite for the degrees conferred in that organization. In some countries, but not the United States, there are religious restrictions on membership in the AASR.

The AASR in the United States is organized into two jurisdictions, the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction (comprising states north of the Mason-Dixon line, north of the Ohio River, and east of the Mississippi, including Delaware) and the Southern Jurisdiction (comprising all other states and some overseas territories). There are some differences in organization between the two jurisdictions; what follows will reflect the Southern Jurisdiction.

Each state within the Southern Jurisdiction is referred to as an Orient; within an Orient may be one or more Valleys. Typically, there is one Valley per metropolitan area, but where political or natural boundaries intervene (e.g., the Twin Cities in Minnesota, the Tidewater in Virginia) or where there is historical reason (e.g., San Francisco, until one Valley's building was damaged in the 1989 earthquake, leading to a merger of the Valleys), a metropolitan area may have more than one Valley.

A Valley generally comprises four bodies (although some may have fewer):

Each of these bodies has its own set of officers and its own set of degrees. However, when a Mason joins the Scottish Rite, it is generally with the intention of receiving all of the degrees of each of the bodies.

The Lodge of Perfection contains the degrees known as the Ineffable Degrees, numbered 4 through 14. The Historical and Religious Degrees, 15-18, belong to the Chapter of Rose Croix. Degrees 19-30, the Chivalric and Philosophical Degrees compose the Council of Kadosh. And the Consistory comprises degrees 31 and 32, the Ceremonial and Official Degrees.

The degrees of the Scottish Rite parallel those of the York Rite in many ways, although the content is considerably more extensive. Since all "higher" degrees are based on the Symbolic Lodge, their fundamental purpose must be the same--to elucidate further the lessons taught in the first three highly symbolic degrees. The York Rite focusses mostly on historical explanation of the Symbolic Degrees, while the Scottish Rite is more concerned with the philosophy of Freemasonry, although these are not hard and fast distinctions.

The Scottish Rite, having a strong national organization, rather than one limited to individual states, is particularly concerned with issues outside of Masonry, such as patriotism and public education.

The Scottish Rite confers a number of honors upon members who have contributed extraordinary service to the Rite, to Masonry in general, and to the world at large. The first of these is the Rank and Decoration of a Knight Commander of the Court of Honour (KCCH), which may be conferred after a minimum of 46 months of membership (usually much longer) and is strictly limited in numbers. A KCCH may, after 46 months at that rank (but usually longer), receive the 33rd degree, Inspector General Honorary. This award is even more limited in numbers than the KCCH. Finally, a very small number of 33rd Degree Inspectors General Honorary may be recognized with the Grand Cross of the Court of Honor; at the present time, there are perhaps an average of two GC's per state. These honors are awarded biennially at the Session of the Supreme Council.

The Supreme Council of the Southern Jurisdiction consists of no more than 33 Active 33rd Degree Scottish Rite Masons, known as Sovereign Grand Inspectors General, no more than one per state/Orient. As there are more than 33 Orients, some will be governed by a Deputy. The Supreme Council is governed by a Sovereign Grand Commander. Unlike the Grand Master in Symbolic Masonry, these appointments are for life, although there are some provisions for retirement at advanced age. Replacements for these positions are made at the biennial Session of the Supreme Council.

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The Degrees of the Scottish Rite (Southern Jurisdiction)

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Other Masonic Family Organizations

The Shriners

The best-known of the other organizations in the Masonic family is, of course, the Shriners, more properly termed the Ancient Arabic Order of Nobles of the Mystic Shrine (A.A.O.N.M.S.) Membership in the Shrine is limited to Knights Templar or 32nd degree Scottish Rite Masons.

Other Social Organizations

Other organizations similar to the Shrine, which are for primarily social and entertainment purposes include the Grotto (formally, the Mystic Order of Veiled Prophets of the Enchanted Realm, or M.O.V.P.E.R.) and the Tall Cedars of Lebanon, both of which are open for membership to any Master Mason.

Groups for Women Related to Masons

A number of organizations for women also exist within Masonry. All require some form of Masonic relationship, such as being the wife, sister, mother, daughter, or granddaughter of a Master Mason (or of a Mason belonging to one of the York or Scottish Rite bodies). These include the Order of the Eastern Star (the best-known and most widely-distributed of the groups), the Order of the Amaranth (also found in most states), the White Shrine of Jerusalem, the Ladies' Oriental Shrine, the Daughters of Isis, the Daughters of the Nile, the Heroines of Jericho, the Social Order of the Beauseant, the Daughters of Mokanna, and some others. Some of these organizations are for women only, while others (notably the Eastern Star and Amaranth) not only admit Master Masons but require them to be present for the operation of the body.

Masonic Youth Groups

There are also three Masonic groups for children. They are the International Order of DeMolay (for boys ages 13-21), the International Order of Job's Daughters (for girls ages 11-21), and the International Order of Rainbow for Girls (for girls ages 11-21). Of these, only the Job's Daughters requires a Masonic relationship. DeMolay is organized into Chapters, Job's Daughters into Bethels, and Rainbow into Assemblies. All of these groups are supervised by a board of adults which includes Master Masons and may include senior/majority members of the group, parents of members, and--in the case of Job's Daughters and Rainbow--members of the Orders of Eastern Star and Amaranth. Rainbow Assemblies may sponsor a Rainbow Pledge group of girls aged 8-10 who pledge to join the Rainbow when they reach age 11; most Pledges turn out to be younger sisters of members of the Assembly, of course. All of these groups have their own ritual based in some way on the moral instruction of Freemasonry. The purpose of these youth organizations is to instil qualities of leadership in young people by giving them the opportunity to run their own organizations. Masonic youth groups are expected to raise their own funds (car washes and bake sales are popular methods), plan their own activities (subject to adult supervision, of course), support charitable causes, and participate in service projects.

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Famous Freemasons

The following lists are far from complete. Denslow's 10,000 Famous Freemasons, although dated, is worth consulting.

In music: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Franz Joseph Haydn, John Philip Sousa, Jean Sibelius, Irving Berlin, Robert Burns.

In politics: Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harry S Truman. Franklin, Jackson, and Truman were all Grand Masters of Masons.

In letters: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller, Arthur Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling.

In aviation: Charles Lindbergh, Edwin E. "Buzz" Aldrin.

In entertainment: Arthur Godfrey, Red Skelton, Ernest Borgnine, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Will Rogers, Danny Thomas, Burl Ives.

In the military: Omar Bradley, Arleigh Burke, Mark Clark, George C. Marshall, Richard E. Byrd, John "Black Jack" Pershing, Douglas MacArthur, Walter Boomer.

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Masonic Charity

All Masonic bodies operate charitable organizations of some type. Some of these are:

Masonic charity in the United States alone collects more than $1 million per day. Because Masonic charity has little overhead, being operated by volunteers rather than a paid staff, well over 90% of the approximately half billion dollars per year goes to actual end uses in medical research, care for the elderly, and other worthwhile objectives. Although some Masonic charity is intended for members of the Masonic family, over half of American Masonic philanthropy benefits the general public.

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Finding a Lodge (for non-Masons and travelers/sojourners)

A question asked by both non-Masons who wish to join the Fraternity and by traveling or sojourning Masons, is "How do I find a Lodge in my [or a strange or new] city?" Here are some ideas:

  1. Look in the white pages of the phone directory under the headings "Lodge," "Masonic," or, in the case of smaller places, the name of the place (e.g., Herndon Lodge is in Herndon, VA).
  2. Look in the yellow pages of the phone directory under the heading "Fraternal Organizations."
  3. In a major metropolitan area, look in the white pages for "Scottish Rite" or "Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite."

Once you have found the address and phone number of a Lodge, it may still require some ingenuity to become acquainted with some Masons (if you wish to become one) or attend a meeting (if you are already a member). Lodge phone numbers may not be answered except on the few evenings of the month when a meeting is being held--and that's what you want to find out in the first place. (Some Lodges are pressing forward into the 20th century and have answering machines with meeting dates and times.) One possibility is to visit the Lodge building and look for a sign or notice board giving the times of meetings. If there is none, look for a sign, such as "In case of emergency, contact..." and call the person indicated. Be persistent! If you are a non-Mason possessing the necessary qualifications and who sincerely wants to join the Fraternity, Masons do want to meet you. If you are a visiting Brother, you know you are welcome.

If you call the Scottish Rite, you are more likely to find a real person answering the phone during business hours; being Secretary of the AASR bodies in a metropolitan area is close to a full-time job. The Scottish Rite Secretary will be able to direct you to most of the Lodges in the area. But only larger population concentrations will have Scottish Rite bodies--perhaps less than a dozen per state, as opposed to hundreds of Lodges in a state.

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Further Information

The Center for Masonic Information may be reached at
8120 Fenton Street, Silver Spring, MD 20910-4785.
(301) 588-4010

The Philalethes Society has its own Web page. The Society is one of the major Masonic research organizations with an annual Feast and Forum in Washington, DC every February and numerous local chapters, as well as an excellent bimonthly magazine. [new!]

Peter Trei maintains a Masonic page with current "hits" from Usenet and pointers to many other Web sites with Masonic information.

A brother in Australia was kind enough to post a Masonic reading list to alt.freemasonry, which may be of interest.

Some ISPs carry the newsgroup alt.masonic.members, but it is a low-traffic group. Back to Table of Contents

Author: Roger M. Firestone, 32 KCCH.

Opinions expressed herein are his own; only the chief presiding officer (e.g., the Grand Master, Grand High Priest, Sovereign Grand Commander, etc.) can speak authoritatively for Masonry, and then only for their own body and jurisdiction, and only during their own term of office.

To the local Masonic index.